The crisis between Muslims in Kwara State and traditional worshippers on the propriety or otherwise of the traditional religious festival known as Isese, in what looks like a beam of religious crisis in Ilorin, Kwara State, the question of religious tolerance and Nigeria’s secularity has also come to bear as traditional worshippers battle for survival in the state.
The tussle began in July when flyers trended online that a priestess, Yeye Ajesikemi Olokun, was planning a celebration of Yoruba cultural heritage known as the Isese Festival in some areas of the state.
The flyers announced a three-day event in Ilorin, but not long after the flyers emerged online, members of a Muslim group stormed her residence and warned her not to hold the festival. The group had claimed they were sent by the Emir of Ilorin, Dr Sulu Gambari.
The spokesperson for the Emir of Ilorin, Mallam Abdulazeez Arowona, also said the Emir was not in support of the festival.
Arowona in an earlier interview with the media noted that there had never been a time in history when “idolatry activities” were carried out in the Ilorin Emirate.
“The Emir has made it public that he’s not in support, and he’s warned them to stay away from Kwara or Ilorin Emirate. So, any group that shares the same view and opinion with His Royal Highness can also come out and then do such, which the group you just mentioned now has done.”
Speaking further, Arowona claimed that the palace’s decision not to allow the Isese festival in the state was also backed by all arms of government in the state.
The Priestess, Omolara, on her part, however, lamented how she came under threats because of the planned event, which did not eventually hold in Kwara.
“I was planning an Isese festival in Ilorin. Issues began after flyers for the event were posted online. In no time, I was bombarded with calls and social media tags.
“Some of my people soon began calling to inform me of plans by the Imams to shut my event down. It’s been a stressful couple of days since the flyers were released, I have received multiple death threats from unknown people,” she said in a video in July.
The matter became a national discourse as public intellectuals and religious leaders waded in.
Playwright, Prof. Wole Soyinka, took a swipe at the Emir of Ilorin for his role in stopping Yeye Omolara from holding the festival in the state.
Soyinka, who is the Akintalun of Egba and Giiwa of Ijebu-Remo, noted that such conduct turned, before our very eyes, a once ecumenical city like Kaduna into a blood-stained mockery of cohabitation.
In an open letter to the Emir, Soyinka party said, “Your Royal Highness, so soon after the Moslem season of spiritual purification, it is sad to see the ancient city of Ilorin, a confluence of faiths and ethnic varieties, reduced to this level of bigotry and intolerance, manifested in the role of a presiding monarch. The truncation of a people’s traditional festival is a crime against the cultural heritage of all humanity. Year after year, Ramadan has been celebrated in this nation as an inclusive gathering of humanity, irrespective of divergences of belief. Not once, in my entire span of existence, have I encountered pronouncements by followers of any faith that the slaughtering of rams on the streets and marketplaces is an offence to their concept of the Godhead. Vegetarians hold their peace. Buddhists walk a different path. Prior to Ramadan, non-Moslems routinely join in observing the preceding season of fasting as a spiritual exercise worthy of emulation.’’
On his part, a renowned Ifa priest, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, urged federal and state governments to caution the Emir against action that could breach freedom of association in the town.
“It is disheartening that a ruler that was supposed to embrace all religions, would go to the extent of preventing people of other faith from practicing their religion.”
Meanwhile, the Emir replied to Soyinka, saying the move was only to prevent a crisis in the state.
“This is to prevent a crisis and not wait until it erupts because the cost of managing crises cannot be equated to the wisdom or courage required to prevent it. It is therefore surprising to hear that the position of Professor Soyinka is identical to someone who does not consider what might transpire if the programme was hosted. There are many non-indigenes in Kwara who are serving and retired, including business owners who have vowed to move their families to the state due to the peace and harmony enjoyed therein.
“Yeye Ajesikemi also confirmed that she has been living harmoniously in Ilorin for many years, not until she decided to go beyond her boundaries,” a statement by the Emir’s spokesperson said.
But the matter did not end in July as the police and Muslim groups in the state have again warned against the Isese festival in Kwara particularly on August 20, which is a general day for such an event.
Police spokesperson in the state, SP Okasanmi Ajayi, in a statement said, “Vigilante, local hunters, community policing members, and the leadership of the traditional worshippers in Kwara, along with some of their leaders from adjoining states, have also been dialogued with and made to understand that the intelligence available to the Police Command does not favour the kind of celebrations being planned by one of the religious sects in the state; they have been advised to relocate their celebration to another state pending a favorable security situation in the state.”
The Council of Ulama (Islamic clerics) in Kwara on Tuesday warned those planning to celebrate traditional religion or Ifa festival in Ilorin, the state capital, to retrace their steps.
The council warned that the Ifa festival, under any guise, would not be allowed in any part of Ilorin Emirate, comprising Asa, Moro, Ilorin East, Ilorin West and Ilorin South local government areas.
The executive secretary of the council, Justice Salihu Mohammed, during a press conference held in Ilorin, said, “It is in the light of this that we have found it extremely necessary to plead with the Kwara State government and all stakeholders to appeal to the ICIR and similar interest groups to stay away from Ilorin as available evidence convinced us that the staging of the event in Ilorin would have a serious negative consequence on the peace of Kwara State.
“We are not unmindful of the pillage of aspersions and insults mounted on our father, the Emir of Ilorin and chairman, Council of Emirs and Chiefs in Kwara State, Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari by individuals that are expected to know better, which are unfortunate, condemnable and inexcusable.”
Wading in from the perspective of the law, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Wahab Shittu, in an interview with our correspondent on Tuesday, said the religious sentiment of Ilorin could not be overlooked, noting that the rigid application of the law may not work well in this case. The lawyer sought dialogue in the resolution of the matter.
Shittu said, “We all know that Ilorin is majorly a religious city, so the sentiment of the environment ought not to be ignored if we are to reach a very amicable resolution of this matter. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fundamental laws of the land which describe Nigeria as a secular state where all adherents of religious groups are also entitled to practice their religion without hindrance. The solution to that can be captured under the maxim: Your right to smoke the way you want should end where my nose begins. That is, not everything that can be resolved through the rigid application of the law. This is one example where parties involved can reach an amicable understanding. This matter can be resolved through dialogue. The dialogue will specify the parameters. The law functions in society with the objective to guarantee peaceful coexistence. What is lacking, in this case, is the absence of communication. There is a communication gap (between the two parties). I also blame the leadership – the political elite, who ought to have intervened before now so that it doesn’t snowball into a major crisis.”
On his part, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), said it was wrong for the police to constitute itself as an authority issuing a directive for a festival not to hold without a court order to that effect.
Adegboruwa said, according to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, “Nigeria shall be a secular state and no government or any government agency is allowed to adopt any religion as the official religion of the state. The police are part of the executive arm of the government and are bound by the Constitution. The police should focus on the primary responsibility of detection and prevention of crime rather than dabble into matters relating to faith.
Saying religious rights are guaranteed by law, the SAN added, “Whether it is Isese, Christianity or Islam, anywhere anybody wants to practise his faith in accordance with the law, it should not be hindered at all. To that extent, the release from the police directing the Isese worshippers to take their practice elsewhere contravenes the law. It’s beyond the powers of the police because police cannot give judgment. Anybody who is not happy about the observance of a particular faith can go to court to take up a declaration for the court to pronounce whether that practice is legal or illegal. In the case of Ilorin, what the police should do is to offer protection to Isese worshippers and ensure that they are not molested, hindered or harassed by any other person. I believe the Presidency should call the police to order. In fact, it is the statement of the police that is likely to incite (violence) when they should offer protection to them.”
Human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, also condemned the action of the police for issuing a statement against the festival.
Inibehe in a telephone conversation with the media, “The clerics don’t have the power to determine who should practise or manifest his or her faith. The police do not have the competence in law to tell traditional worshippers that they cannot demonstrate their religion in public.”